Thursday, February 12, 2009

Poker entering the mainstream

Little by little, the poker world is infiltrating the "real" world and the names and faces that are well known to those of us who follow poker are getting their 15 minutes outside the poker world.

There was Phil Hellmuth on the finale of Season One of Top Chef, Jean-Robert Bellande on Survivor-China, Daniel Negreanu on Rob and Amber-Against the Odds (okay, so only I saw that), Johnny Chan in "Rounders," and the poker pros hiding behind aliases in the recent movie "Lucky You."

Now, three more poker pros are stretching their notoriety beyond the felt -- but only two can be happy about it.

First up is the ever lovely Vanessa Rousso, she of the long blond locks and zip lining commercial for PokerStars. Now, Ms. Rousso is not just another pretty face. She was her high school valedictorian, graduated early from Duke and went on to law school. She's had seven money finishes in the WSOP and just missed a WPT final table.

But this month she is will be seen by millions in the pages of the 2009 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition. That should dispel the myth that only middle aged, cigar chomping men and pimply faced computer nerds play poker.

Then there is Annie Duke. She, too, is no academic slouch, having graduated from Columbia undergrad and then going on to grad school at Penn. She is also a WSOP bracelet winner for Omaha 8/b (one of the most frustratingly confounding games out there) as well as the winner of the first WSOP Tournament of Champions.

Duke has had two prior small appearance on civilian -- i.e., non-poker -- TV game shows, once as a member of the "mob" on 1 v. 100 and the other time as a supporter on Deal or No Deal.

But she'll be getting a lot more face time in her next television venture. Duke is scheduled to be on this season's Celebrity Apprentice, fighting it out with the usual bizarre array of people from faux celebrities (Kim Kardashian's sister) to those with real accomplishments (Olympic skater Scott Hamilton). With her smarts and savvy, and her experience in a predominantly male environment, Duke is expected to do very well and gather some new fans along the way.

But the last poker pro to cross over to the mainstream would just as well remain anonymous. Lyle Berman, the 3-time bracelet winner, inductee in the Poker Hall of Fame, and former owner of the Vegas Stratosphere found himself on a list none of us would want to be on. The Bernie Madoff client list. He's in good company, sharing a spot with Sandy Koufax and Jeffrey Katzenberg.

According to reports, Berman invested in two Madoff-controlled funds, but the amount of his losses has not been reported. Berman was interviewed after his name was made public and told reporters for the StarTribune, "I heard about Madoff 25 years ago from some friends in California and decided to give him a try." Reflecting on the nature of the "investment," Berman added. "It worked out fine for quite a while."

Sadly, that is exactly how schemes such as Madoff's work out. Fine, until the fraud is discovered. And then it all comes crashing down. For someone who makes his living reading people, being caught up in such a large scale scam must have been a shock to Berman. But he certainly wasn't alone.

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